Aug 31 2021

4 Technologies Transforming the Field of Dentistry

Modern tools such as teledentistry, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and 3D printing are changing the way dentists deliver care.

Everyone benefits from regular dental checkups, but as noted by the American Dental Association (ADA), more than 20 percent of patients haven’t seen a dentist in the past few years. Fifty-nine percent say they can’t afford regular visits, while 22 percent point to fear of dental care and 19 percent highlight issues with finding a convenient location or time.

Both pandemic pressures and evolving patient preferences, however, have conspired to drive the development of new dental technology solutions to help dentists deliver better care and make better connections with clients. Four recent advances in dentistry tech are at the forefront of this change: Teledentistry, virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and 3D printing.

Teledentistry Expands Access to Care

Like many other medical services, dental offices were forced to close for general care during the initial stages of COVID-19. Recent survey data from the ADA’s Health Policy Institute found that while most offices are once again open for business, more than half report lower patient volumes compared with pre-pandemic numbers.

Teledentistry — the delivery of dental consulting or basic examinations using digital tools such as synchronous or asynchronous video — offers a way to help bridge the gap.

“As we saw with telehealth, the pandemic has massively increased the adoption of teledentistry technologies,” says Neil Lappage, public sector solutions lead at ITC Secure and ISACA adviser and media spokesperson for new and emerging technologies. “It makes sense. These technologies both reduce the risk of viral transmission and help dentists comply with local health measures.”

DISCOVER: Learn more about telehealth’s benefits for patient-centered care.

According to a recent analysis, teledentistry can minimize travel-related stress for patients, especially those who lack access to a reliable vehicle or have to drive long distances to access dental care. Teledentistry tools can also help determine if a true emergency exists and an immediate trip to the dentist is required, or if a patient can wait until their regular check-up, Lappage says.

The caveat? Dentists need to ensure that any telehealth technology they use complies with health regulations.

“One of the key things with HIPAA is that you don’t just hop on and use any solution. You need to make sure you’ve got compliance,” says Lappage.

Virtual Reality Provides Distractions for Patients

VR is another up-and-coming dental technology that could help practitioners deliver better care to patients.

In a dental practice setting, virtual or augmented reality (AR) could take the form of headsets worn by patients to provide digital distractions. In many ways, it’s an extension of function currently filled by ceiling-mounted televisions in dental offices that give patients something else to focus on.

According to a recent Cedars-Sinai study, virtual reality also has statistically significant impacts on pain management: VR users reported a consistent drop in perceived pain when using VR. This can also help create empathy between dentist and patient, in turn, leading to improved care.

Neil Lappage
Because VR is used to relax the patient and reduce the pain, the dentist is seen in the eyes of the patient as providing empathy.”

Neil Lappage Public Sector Solutions Lead, ITC Secure and Adviser, ISACA

“Because VR is used to relax the patient and reduce the pain,” says Lappage, “the dentist is seen in the eyes of the patient as providing empathy.”

VR is also used in training to allow dentistry students to digitally experience dental procedures, Lappage says. This is especially useful for emergent issues that rarely occur but require specific experience to treat.

Artificial Intelligence Aids in Diagnostics

As noted in Dentistry Today, AI tools are now more consistent than dentists in diagnosing tooth decay from bitewing and peripheral radiographs, which makes sense: AI algorithms are trained using billions of data points to make decisions based on available evidence, giving them an edge over humans when it comes to identifying specific conditions.

“There’s a real use case for AI in the discovery of abnormal structures, determining diagnoses and suggesting treatments,” says Lappage. “At the end of the day, dentists are human. AI acts as another pair of eyes validating their results.”

MORE FROM HEALTHTECH: How can artificial intelligence improve patient outcomes?

Privacy issues can pose a problem, says Lappage. “The big challenge in AI is that we need to seed the engine with real patient data. A lot of healthcare AI applications struggle with complete de-identification of data: By reinserting data, it may be possible to re-identify people. Practices need to make sure people can’t be identified in AI tools.”

Still, Lappage sees an expanding use case for AI in both clinical decision-making and dental education. Armed with anonymous dental data, these tools can help improve the accuracy of clinical treatment plans before irreversible procedures are performed and generate templates for students to use in dental treatment analysis.

3D Printing Is Cost-Effective for Patients and Practitioners

The advent of low-cost, high-speed 3D printers makes it possible for dental practices to both reduce total expenses and improve overall patient satisfaction.

Lappage points to the use of dental implants: “If you look at dental implants, it could cost around $100,000 to build a lab for manufacture,” he says. “A top-model 3D printer, meanwhile, is around $20,000. By reducing the cost of manufacturing that tooth, we’re reducing the price to the patient.”

Other applications for 3D printing in dentistry include medical modelling and dental splints. According to a recent Nature article, cone beam computed tomography (CBCT) data of patient dental structures is now commonly available to dental practices and can be used to create a volumetric image, which is then used to create a 3D model of the patient’s jaws. This model can be used to evaluate the impact of treatments or plan specific surgical interventions.

Meanwhile, 3D printing offers a faster, cheaper way to create dental splints, which are used to prevent tooth grinding. Until recently, broken splints meant the slow and costly creation of replacements. Now, new splints can be created in just over an hour.

Dental Technology Brings Security Considerations

While new dental technologies offer benefits such as increased ease of access, reduced patient stress, improved diagnostic accuracy and lower material costs, Lappage notes that “the more we use these technologies, the richer the information we have. As a result, the value of healthcare records is increasing, and the number of ransomware and phishing attacks on dentists are on the rise.” In one case, a dental practice lost almost $60,000 over three days after a data breach crippled operations.

To help limit security risk and improve patient confidence, Lappage suggests prioritizing privacy by design. In practice, this means building in security and access controls for digital data before it’s shared among healthcare services or partners to ensure that if attacks do occur, the chance of a data breach is substantially reduced.

Bottom line? New technologies are transforming dental practices, driving benefits across the industry for patients and providers alike.

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